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The business voice in Rio: Is anyone listening?

Close to the beginning of a dialogue on sustainable development in the Rio+20 negotiations, I caught sight of a government delegate preparing to head over to the conference venue with an air mattress packed in his tote bag.

There will be long nights ahead. Governments face obstacles in the fundamental areas of these deliberations relating to technology access, intellectual property rights and financial support. Developing countries are also concerned over the cost and impact of proposed green economy frameworks. Meanwhile, heads of government begin arriving on Tuesday to bring the meeting to its conclusion on Friday.

Looking at these sticking points, I am struck by how many of them are similar to those discussed at the first Rio Earth Summit twenty years ago -- and just how much the business sector is involved in these areas. The 1992 meeting agreed on a blueprint for action in sustainable development known as Agenda 21, which stated:

“…A stable policy regime enables and encourages business and industry to operate responsibly and efficiently and to implement longer-term policies. Increasing prosperity, a major goal of the development process, is contributed primarily by the activities of business and industry. Business enterprises, large and small, formal and informal, provide major trading, employment and livelihood opportunities. (…) Business and industry, including transnational corporations, and their representative organizations should be full participants in the implementation and evaluation of activities related to Agenda 21.”

Photo of green boardroom provided by GrandeDuc via Shutterstock.

Much has changed since 1992, but there are still some fundamental business points we urge government negotiators to take on board:

  • Green growth policies must function in the context of global markets – refraining from trade barriers and subsidies;
  • New policies to enable innovation and investment are paramount – these include stronger intellectual property right protection and safeguards for commercially vital information;
  • Business must be at the table to help chart a practical and sustainable course.

In an op-ed published in the International Herald Tribune on Thursday, Nader Mousavizadeh and Georg Kell asked: “Where is the voice of business when you need it?”  It was a question that left me and a lot of my colleagues scratching our heads.

Business representatives are in Rio in record numbers and are attending the negotiations. Yet despite two decades of effort, we have yet to see governments fully engage business to craft sensible policies or truly mobilize the private sector in support of sustainable development.

Business people are organizing and attending impressive satellite events, such as the Day of Business on June 19 (organized by Business Action for Sustainable Development) expected to attract over 700 participants. They also have a presence at numerous government pavilions at the conference such as the U.S. Center. There, business professionals will present on a range of topics such as cleaner technologies and innovative partnerships.

Even more than in 1992, the headings of the current draft negotiating text for this meeting read like a timely and important list of business issues: technology, green economy, jobs, trade.  Yet in the actual discussions of the meeting, business has been limited to the same extremely brief and very rare opportunities to offer their expertise and knowledge at the same level as other non-governmental interests.

As frustrating as the twists, turns and bumps on the road to Rio+20 have been, the business community has continued to underscore the critical importance (for companies, national governments and global institutions) of and of actively involving the business sector, as well as finding more environmentally-friendly paths for business and economic development in the years ahead.

Just as in 1992, our aim for the Rio+20 Summit is to increase prosperity in a sustainable way. Numerous business people like myself are indeed here at the conference looking for opportunities to offer recommendations and experiences as the negotiations, which are now heading into crunch time.

So perhaps the real question isn’t “Where is the voice of business?” but rather, is anybody listening?

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